David McCullough's heroes of history

From Paris to the Brooklyn Bridge, author David McCullough shows how hard work and creativity shaped America's cultural landscape

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The following script is from "McCullough, Part Two" which aired on Nov. 11, 2012. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning, producer.

As the post-election cheers die down or, depending on your politics, the post-election blues set in, we'd like to divert your attention, take you back to a time when this country was just becoming a country.

In the second part of our profile of the historian David McCullough which began last week, we go with him to Paris, the destination back in the 19th century for a host of young Americans, eager to learn from what was then the most important city in the world.

France was the cradle of the modern idea of democracy. French troops were vital to America's victory in the War of Independence and Paris led the world in science, medicine and the arts. And as McCullough has written, the city was irresistible to the new citizens of a new nation.

David McCullough: They came here in the droves. They were here in order to improve themselves and to go home and thereby improve their country.

They were the first wave of innocents abroad, who began arriving in Paris just 50 years after Independence. Writers, artists, medical students.

David McCullough: They couldn't quite adjust to how old everything is. When they were looking at Notre Dame they were looking at a building that was begun before Columbus ever sailed.

Paris had grand boulevards. Breathtaking parks. Great universities. All the things young America didn't have.

Morley Safer: Was there even an art museum in the United States?

David McCullough: No. No art museum in the United States, none.

So in 1830, an artist named Samuel Morse came to study the treasures of the Louvre. His painting of what he saw there is a masterwork. But Morse had other talents as well. While in Paris, he dreamed up the idea for the telegraph, as revolutionary in its day as the Internet is in ours.

David McCullough: He developed not only the telegraphic system, but what we call the Morse code, which was essential.

Morse later met Louis Daguerre, the father of photography as we know it. Daguerre showed him this picture, a Paris street scene from 1836: the first photographic image of a human being: a man getting his boots polished. Morse was astonished, and with Daguerre's blessing, brought photography to America.

David McCullough: So one man, having spent time here, brought home not only a stunning work of art, an American masterpiece, but the idea for the telegraph and the idea for photography.

Others would bring back new ideas in art, architecture and medicine. In 1871, Mary Putnam became the first American woman to graduate from medical school in Paris. Artists drew inspiration from the city's magnificent Luxembourg gardens, irresistible to anyone with a passion for art, including our tour guide.

[Morley Safer: You got it.]

133 years ago, at nearly the same spot, the young American John Singer Sargent painted the gardens in one of his early masterpieces: a couple out for a stroll at twilight.

David McCullough: There's something magical about this place. I think it's the bridges. I do. There's something about -

Morley Safer: You and your bridges.